Being Human Together

The past few weeks have been kind of bizarre for me. D&D5E and the issues surrounding it have me feeling pretty much done with D&D for the time being. I may wind up playing it if my friends really want to, but as things stand I’m not going to spend any more money on it. When all is said and done if I decide I really want the dungeon fantasy genre there are literally dozens of options, to the point where the only unique thing D&D really has to offer is the words “Dungeons & Dragons” on the cover (and if you count different editions separately, there are about a dozen games with that distinction anyway). But of late I’m also just finding D&D’s mass of overdone cliches boring and stifling. I don’t want to be so negative about it, but it’s the truth that it’s really not doing it for me. On top of that, although the playtest of Magical Burst was informative, it was also exhausting, and left me with a great deal to think about, some of it much more fundamental than whether the witch’s Hex ability is overpowered.

After poking at about half a dozen different projects over the course of a week or so, I wound up starting pretty intensively brainstorming for Beyond Otaku Dreams. Of the games I’m trying to design it’s by far the most personal, and also the one that most eagerly embraces being a “story game.” My initial inspiration to take another look at it came from Epidiah Ravachol’s Swords Without Master, featured in Issue 3 of Worlds Without Master. SWM is a descendant of MonkeyDome, a simple game that’s fundamentally about rolling to see what tone the scene takes (Grim/Zany in MonkeyDome, Glum/Jovial in SWM). Traditional RPGs are highly concerned with whether PCs succeed or fail at things, sometimes to the point of not having rules for much else. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but there’s a massive, mostly unexplored territory of games that don’t bother with it. Fiasco is easily the best-known such game, and the results are often exceptional. Designing such games is at once incredibly liberating and incredibly hard, and I think I didn’t respect that enough when I made the first version of Beyond Otaku Dreams that just totally faceplanted in playtesting.

I’ve been going through a slow process of trying to really break down what I want Beyond Otaku Dreams to do and how to achieve it. It’s hard for a lot of reasons. One is that I’m trying to make a more fantastical version of real life experiences, so there aren’t really any existing narratives that quite fit what I want to create. Another is that it’s in relatively unexplored territory in terms of design, for RPGs in general and me in particular. Put those together and through a lot of the process I’ve been feeling a lot like I’m trying to build a castle on air. That’s led me to reexamine some of the games I have on hand and explore others. Designing a more traditional RPG gives you a bunch of cliches and habits you can fall back on, and I think stepping away from them requires a great deal of care and originality. I like to think I can come up with nifty ideas at times, but I’m not a natural game design iconoclast, so an important part of the process has been looking at what other people have done with such games.

In particular, it got me to take a closer look at my copy of the Norwegian Style book, an anthology of short RPGs from the Norwegian Style blog. It’s a window onto a very different style of role-playing, like looking into one of the possible parallel universes where RPGs came about without D&D.[1] Some have fantastical elements and some don’t, but all speak to the human condition in some way. Very few use much in the way of numbers, but many have little cards with words on them: character roles, events, scenes, etc. D&D grew out of certain kinds of wargames, and a huge portion of RPGs show that they grew out of D&D. That doesn’t make D&D or its descendants bad games, but despite them being numerous and popular, it does mean they represent a limited part of what the medium is capable of. There are an awful lot of things that can go into an RPG where the D&D approach basically amounts to handing you a blank page. (Want your character to be something more than a human fighter with these 7 numbers and a list of gear? Write something on this blank page.) The blank page offers freedom, but it also leaves you stranded with nothing to build on. Compared to that, the Norwegian Style games with their little cards catapult you into a rich character and situation. Other games deposit you at other points on the spectrum with varying degrees of success, and that’s one of the things I’m trying to navigate.

I came across Avery Mcdaldno’s blog post on Imaginary Funerals, which I think says something pretty profound about this hobby. Just like with anime fandom, whatever else it is, this thing we do is very human. That thread of thought met another coming the other way. I’m a huge fan of John Hodgman’s “Complete World Knowledge” trilogy, enough so that I went as far as to write my own book of fake trivia. The world he weaves, what Neil Gaiman called “Earth-Hodgman,” is often hilarious, but at times beautifully melancholy too. He’s said that that phase of his life is over, and he’s on to doing other things like the Judge John Hodgman podcast. One of the things that’s stuck with me is a particular turn of phrase. Towards the end of That Is All, he says that if it turns out Ragnarok doesn’t come, maybe some day he and the reader meet, and spend a moment enjoying being human together. I think “being human together” describes a lot of what I really want out of RPGs, especially right now. I can enjoy games that are more about problem-solving and tactics (and have done so extensively in the past), but I want more games that are more directly about the human condition, with or without genre fiction metaphors. I don’t care at all about what sells more or what’s more “sophisticated,” what is or isn’t “art.”[2] I just want games that exist first and foremost to help create experiences that mean something to me, to bring me together with friends.

So, that’s about where I am right now. It’s a really weird place to be in, but also refreshing in a lot of ways.


[1]Ben Lehman is of the opinion that the Norwegian Style games are more like a conscious attempt at making RPGs that are utterly unlike D&D, and in a hypothetical D&D-free world freeform fandom RP is more likely to have been the basis for RPGs. Either way at some point I really need to sit down and explore other forms of role-playing, including not only freeform but reading up on stuff like psychodrama.

[2]Art is a term that has a way of becoming useless any time you so much as glance at an edge case anyway.

Progress Sort Of

I wanted to take some time to write a bit about what I’ve been up to, admittedly in part just to not have that D&D post at the top of my blog. I’d rather think about making and playing cool stuff myself than worry about what’s going on elsewhere, and I have a heck of a lot of cool stuff going on. On the other hand I’ve had some writer’s block and had a hard time getting serious writing done, which is probably a lot to do with why I keep getting ideas for more random projects.

Magical Burst
I’m just about ready to wrap up my first playtest campaign of the 4th Draft. It’s exposed a huge number of issues with the game, and Versions 4.1 is going to take a good amount of work on various fronts. Right now I’m right about to where I need to step back from the project and mull over all the feedback I’ve gotten and my experiences with the playtest. One key thing I’m definitely writing into the GM advice is to let the magical girls have some semblance of normal lives, because that’s where a lot of the tension and drama of the game come from.

Golden Sky Stories Stuff
Apart from stuff like taking care of the few remaining packages that went missing or got returned, the major thing left to do with GSS is finish up the remaining original material. I was able to knock another thing off the to-do list when I found an artist for Faerie Skies, namely Clove, who among other things did the cover and some other art for Inverse World. He sent me the first of his sketches for Ellisandra the elf, and I am ridiculously happy with the results so far.

Dragon World
For some reason I got inspired to look at Dragon World again. This led to spending an evening reading through the 25k or so words I’d already written, and brainstorming more classes. Among others, I’m working on one called the Digital Invader, which is an MMORPG character being mysteriously projected into the fantasy world. I’m also making some minor tweaks to the rules here and there. It’s going to need more playtesting of course, but it’s looking really good, which I guess shows the advantages of building off of an existing system rather than trying to build one from scratch. Also, using this as an excuse to start watching the 52 episodes of Slayers I haven’t seen. I kind of want to Kickstart it, both to get it out into the world and to have the excuse to see what classes and such my various gaming friends and colleagues could come up with. (Ben Lehman already floated the idea of doing either a maid class or something based on Ryuuko from Kill La Kill.) Also possibly custom dice, though of course I’m getting way ahead of myself.

That also has me inspired to look at what else has been going on in the way of PbtA games. Since I already backed the Kickstarter I finally started reading Inverse World, which turns out to be pretty fantastic, particularly in how it evokes the setting. Likewise there have been some really great new third party Dungeon World playbooks like the Princess and the Dashing Hero. Although core Dungeon World seems really good at what it does, some of the third party stuff seems just spectacular, especially for the stuff where they weren’t beholden to D&D cliches. (And that’s before we talk about Monsterhearts, which is just astonishingly good.)

Slime Story
Looking at all this Apocalypse World-based stuff led me to think about the possibility of reworking Slime Story as a Powered by the Apocalypse game. Slime Story is a concept I came up with literally about 8 years ago, a present-day setting where mysterious magical portals have appeared and started dumping cute monsters like something out of a Korean MMO into the world, and while in many places they’re under the control of warlords or corporations, in suburban America a subculture of teenage monster hunters has arisen. The “Slime Engine” system that I’d been struggling to put together may eventually turn into a good base for Slime Quest (my anime/JRPG-influenced fantasy heartbreaker), but the more I think about it the more it seems a poor fit for Slime Story’s weird mishmash of monster hunting and teenage slice of life. Among other things, it definitely calls for a system where many monster fights are routine and come down to a few quick die rolls.

i.hate.everyone
I got inspired to finish and publish i.hate.bronies, the MLP-themed expansion to i.h.e, and further to do a prototype of i.hate.gimmicks, an experimental expansion with a bunch of stuff to try out new mechanics (which I’ll have to do some actual playtesting on). I also got inspired to do a Game of Thrones expansion. I was going to call it i.hate.thrones, but I realized that i.hate.joffrey might be a better name. It’s coming along slowly though.

Sharkicane vs. Dolphoon
Not an RPG thing, but after watching the RiffTrax Live of Sharknado I got inspired to write this incredibly weird story. The sharks are using dark magic to summon up the Sharkicane, and the dolphins may be our only hope. Also, I realized that the reason the people are being so slow and dumb when they should be evacuating right away is because the sharks’ sorcery has dulled their wits.

Beyond Otaku Dreams
And for an added bonus, reading Epidiah Ravachol’s Swords Without Master (in Issue 3 of Worlds Without Master) got me thinking about Beyond Otaku Dreams. It’s a game I really want to make happen, as it’s based on personal experiences far more than any other game I’ve done. SWM has this intriguing thing where you roll to set the mood as either Jovial or Glum (with passing the dice around the table being an important part of how you play the game), which put me in mind of how Beyond Otaku Dreams is about a collision of Hope and Delusion. It’s incredibly tricky to figure out, since it needs to be a simple but carefully-made mechanism for group storytelling, and it generally gives me a feeling of trying to build a castle in the air.

D&D 5E First Impressions

On July 3rd the free PDF of the D&D Basic Rules went up on the WotC site, and the Starter Set went on sale at local game stores (with a wider release to come on the 15th). I’ve had a rather unusual relationship with the game, as it’s something I only ever really engaged as an adult hobbyist. For me D&D doesn’t have any particular nostalgia, and it was always one of many, many possible games to play. That some people act as though it were the only RPG in the world is just plain baffling to me, and I probably would not have stuck with this hobby for 20+ years if there were only the one game to play. That’s the kind of attitude I come to this with, so this first impressions thing isn’t going to be hugely positive.

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With the Starter Set and Basic Rules on hand, 5E isn’t all that bad, but the parts I actually find interesting are hiding in odd corners, more useful to me as potential stuff to try in other games. Granted these versions of the game deliberately have simple baseline versions of the classes (well, as simple as they’re willing to let the wizard and cleric get, which isn’t very simple at all), but they’re the four most cliche D&D classes, and the fighter is the staggeringly boring “I hit it with my sword” guy. If I play the game before the PHB comes out, there won’t actually be a single class I particularly want to play, and about the best compromise will be shoehorning my 4E warlord character into a cleric.
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i.hate.everyone Custom Pack

Okay, so here’s the deal. i.hate.everyone is out into the world, but it’s not exactly making me money, and was first and foremost a game I made because it’s fun to play with my friends anyway. I have thus decided to do a Creative Commons release, aimed at letting people make their own i.h.e cards. That’s the “Custom Pack,” which is a Creative Commons licensed set of files with all the stuff for making cards. It’s an attribution license, so the sole caveat is that you have to give credit to me (and Clay, who did the graphic design for the cards).

The pack also includes Photoshop files, but for the full effect you need InDesign, which has the insanely powerful and useful Data Merge feature, which is seriously phenomenally helpful if you’re trying to make 380 cards. If you want to learn more about designing cards and stuff like Data Merge, I highly recommend Daniel Solis’ Skillshare class on the subject.

There’s also an included document (in docx and PDF) with the rules (also CC licensed), card writing tips, and guides for preparing cards for DriveThruCards, The Game Crafter, SuperiorPOD, and a basic PNP version.

Download the i.hate.everyone Custom Pack

Magical Burst Design Journal June 2014

Last week I ran the third session of my Magical Burst playtest campaign. Even more so than I’d intended, the 4th draft has wound up being a nailing down of the overall structure with a lot of details needing more work. Combat is important to the game of course, and I’ve made it in such a way that it needs some careful balancing to really work. One of the key steps is going to be sitting down to really iron out the math and the design structures around it. A lot of things are working about how I want, but a few key things aren’t, though I’m starting to better understand why they aren’t. Here’s an update on where I’m at, which should give a general idea on what I’m going to be trying to do for version 4.1.

Specializations and Talents
Some things simply needing clarifications or rejiggering to work properly, but there’s also issues with game balance and making these crunchy bits actually be fun to engage. It comes back to the thing that the perspectives of a designer and a player are really different, and it can be difficult to look at it from the other side and make sure that the choices presented to the player are compelling and appropriate. Ideally I want the lists of Magical Talents to be a collection of good choices that are all more or less equally compelling.

The Witch’s Hex ability is one of the big things that is proving to be a problem all around. In an earlier version of the game I took a cue from Magical Burst ReWrite and gave Witch magical girls a flat +1 to damage, but we wanted to try something more interesting, hence the Hex ability that lets a witch put a cumulative point of continuing damage on an enemy. There are a few different potential issues with this, one of the big ones being the potential for abuse. I did take the precaution of making it so that each witch can only use it once per turn, but with multiple witches (or even a team of ALL witches) it’s easy to imagine killing an enemy with nothing but Hexes, which is definitely not what I was going for. It also has issues with both the opportunity cost and the way it’s used. Since it uses your Minor Action, it’s really easy to get through a turn without getting a chance to use it, and it’s also just not as interesting as it could be because you simply declare it and it happens. Our present working concept for a revised version is a thing where the Hexes a witch places on youma are by themselves inert, and another witch ability “detonates” them to do a base amount of damage or add additional effects for multiple hexes. Multiple witches could thus build up to the special effects faster, but wouldn’t be able to dominate a youma without touching the dice.

Link meanwhile is one of those things that’s a really nifty idea that’s hard to limit in the right ways to keep it from being overly powerful or overly weak. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with that.

Relationships
Probably the biggest flaw with the relationship rules I’m seeing right now is in how they’re set up. Relationship with other magical girls are harder to damage and easier to figure out creatively (since you don’t have to invent any new characters whole cloth), so players end up emphasizing those and neglecting the intended emphasis of relationships with normal people, potentially for game reasons but also simply because it’s easier. The part about assigning points is also a bit more time-consuming than I’d like. Between the two factors, I’m thinking of changing the setup process a bit. Maybe something along the lines of relationships starting at a rank of 2, and players getting 3-4 relationships they can create in addition to those with the magical girls.

Non-Combat Moves
So far I haven’t given the non-combat moves as much testing as I’d actually like, and that’s partly due to simply needing to run the game in such a way that they come up more often. Investigating is potentially a major element of the game, and it’s something that RPGs have never been great at in general. On top of that, it’s proving hard to give players a basis on which to investigate nonsensical magic stuff and still have it be compelling.

On the other hand I was really happy with the effect that invoking the Stay Calm move had in last week’s session. It brought home the impact of that week’s Shocking Revelations, and totally changed the mood of the scene.

Fallout
Someone on 4chan pointed out that Fury fallout is often much more disruptive than other kinds, which is definitely something I need to work on more. It’s true that a glitch in reality or a weird hug are potentially easier for a friend to overlook than if you suddenly punch them, and also in play I find that sometimes there’s not a huge difference between Distortions and certain Temporary Changes. I’m still trying to figure out how to approach it, but another reworking of Fallout is definitely a possibility.

The other issue that’s come up is just figuring out how and when to make fallout happen. I think I need to do more to encourage players to call my attention to it as the GM, especially since in my playtest campaign I’ve got 5 players, which is pushing the upper limit of what I can really handle in general. I try to integrate the fallout stuff into natural situations and such, but it takes a decent amount of effort on my part.

The Battlefield Map
One of the big challenges of using the Battlefield Map has been making it necessary and interesting. In playtests characters tended to move into the right range to attack and stay there unless something forced them to do otherwise. The concept of Nightmare Features was partly meant to add things to make movement more necessary. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with the whole “Disengage” concept, because while it makes getting in close to an enemy a more interesting prospect, it also makes the battlefield more static.

What I’m currently thinking is to bump the map up to 6 positions, and to have the linear map be the default but not the thing used for every battle. In Last Stand the map system has maps of around 6 areas, arranged however the GM sees fit, whether a 2×3 grid for a section of city, a single line for a long corridor, a tower for a skyscraper, and so on. Moreover, I need to think about ways to have the youma move around in interesting ways.

Youma Design
My experience with previous drafts was that I’d made the youma too weak. I tried to power them up in this version, and I’m finding that they’re still too weak, though they do at least work well in terms of serving the purpose of saddling the magical girls with Overcharge.

Probably the single biggest issue is making them into viable “boss” monsters. Creating one enemy that can be a viable threat to multiple foes without the difference in numbers work against them runs against the grain of how RPG design typically works in general. Culling through the D&D4e monster books provided me with a lot of ideas for individual elements to make a good boss/solo enemy, but assembling a complete picture out of those is a good deal harder. One thing that emerged is that it’s easy for a boss to get layered with status effects, and hard to know how much a boss should be able to counter that. The current system where the youma’s Power Level and Spread set up certain stats and give the youma two kinds of ability selections isn’t really working, and I’m thinking I need to develop something a little more detailed, and something that covers the basics that a youma needs automatically. Right now my general thinking on that is to make a small selection of youma classes/specializations, which in turn have certain abilities that scale up according to PL and Spread, and then allow for some additional stuff on top of that. That will make it easier to create stuff to scale number of attacks, status resistance, etc. according to what the youma actually needs to have.

Story Stuff
A thing that’s emerging in a big way in both my campaigns and the novels I’ve been writing and brainstorming for is that magical girl antagonists are just incredibly useful. They make great foils to the heroines of the story, and they can bring full human intelligence to bear and cause problems in everyday life. I had been thinking about, for example, having the eventual “Magical Burst Companion” book have rules for magical girls falling to the Dark Side (inspired by the manga Planet Guardian, where that’s a fairly important plot element), but with or without explicit rules, I’m thinking “dark magical girls” are a trope that deserves more of a place in the core implied setting.

Magical Burst 4th Draft

“All you have to do is make a pact with me.”

Magical girls get to wield magic powers, to fight to protect the people they care about. You’ve seen it in your favorite anime shows again and again, and when a real talking bunny came to you it seemed like a great idea. But somehow those shows never mentioned the cost. They don’t talk about how keeping a secret eats you up inside. About how some magical girls get killed fighting monsters. About how magic can have consequences.

Magical Burst is a role-playing game about a different kind of magical girls.

Players: Recommended for 1 Game Master and 2-5 Players, Age 16+
Play Time: One or more sessions of 3-5 hours
Materials Required: Paper, pencils, six-sided dice, and pawns or miniatures


It took far too long, but the fourth draft of Magical Burst is here. Seriously. It’s happening. This in turn is a step towards finalizing and publishing the game, which will hopefully take a lot less than the 3 years it took to go from the 3rd draft to the 4th. In the time since I started working on Magical Burst, Madoka Magica ended and then got a trio of movies, Sailor Moon is making a major comeback, and I got Channel A and Golden Sky Stories published. Magical Burst has evolved considerably as a game, but it’s much closer to being the game I want it to be, a hybrid of my eccentric gaming and aesthetic influences, and generally something no one but me would’ve made.

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The biggest change is the implementation of a tactical combat system inspired by Meikyuu Kingdom with bits of D&D4e and a few other games. It’s still serves the same fundamental purpose of generating Overcharge to fuel the story, but it’s a more detailed system, and it in turn involves a considerable number of character trait selections and such. Although the fundamental concepts are about where I want them, it’s in the nature of such things that there’s a whole lot that will need to be examined and tested. Also, a friend of mine is working on an online character generator thing, so that will be exciting and coming soon.

This version is not completely there yet, but it is a functional game that I’m going to be developing more as I playtest and get feedback and such. There will be future versions, but they’ll be 4.1 and so on rather than a “5th Draft.” I’ve done some playtesting, but there’s still a lot more to do before the game is fully ready. I want to further refine the youma rules, and I’m wondering if the rules for Fallout and for setting up relationships need some more work. Still, the things I’m happy with outnumber the things I’m unhappy with. In any case, here are the PDFs:

Magical Burst 4.0 Rules
Character Sheet
Reference Sheets
Battlefield Map

If you have something to say or share about Magical Burst, feel free to comment here or to join the Magical Burst Google+ community.

Conventions

It was in May of 2013 that I mostly swore off going to conventions. Not permanently or absolutely, but indefinitely, and for health reasons. I have problems with anxiety. In scientific terms anxiety is a sustained activation of the body’s fear response, caused by sustained stress. In my everyday life some days I’m perfectly fine, and other days it becomes a constant thing. Large crowds are a pretty reliable trigger though. I’m also in poor shape physically, which is partly a result of other medical issues I won’t get into here, but partly my own fault too. Between the two, even relatively brief visits to a convention can leave me feeling mentally and physically drained. It was after spending all of six hours at FanimeCon—and subsequently going home, turning my phone off, and climbing into bed—that I finally decided that, for the time being, I’d had enough. Where the fact that I’m alcohol intolerant[1] almost never even comes up, conventions are woven into the fandoms I’m involved in enough that it’s something I feel I legitimately need to make known. Well-meaning friends and coworkers and such assume that as a geek, conventions are a thing I would naturally want to do, and as my role in game publishing has grown I’ve gotten a few fans and business connections proactively asking me to come to cons. I don’t like that things have gone this way, but at this point in my life asking me to go to a place with big crowds of people is rather like inviting a guy with a sprained ankle to Staircase Land. I do need to do something about it, but it’s going to take some time.
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